Will o' the Mill by Robert Louis Stevenson
THE PLAIN AND THE STARS
The Mill where Will lived with his adopted parents stood in a falling
valley between pine-woods and great mountains. Above, hill after hill,
soared upwards until they soared out of the depth of the hardiest
timber, and stood naked against the sky. Some way up, a long gray
village lay like a seam or a rag of vapour on a wooded hillside; and
when the wind was favourable, the sound of the church bells would drop
down, thin and silvery, to Will. Below, the valley grew ever steeper and
steeper, and at the same time widened out on either hand; and from an
eminence beside the mill it was possible to see its whole length and
away beyond it over a wide plain, where the river turned and shone, and
moved on from city to city on its voyage towards the sea. It chanced
that over this valley there lay a pass into a neighbouring kingdom; so
that, quiet and rural as it was, the road that ran along beside the
river was a high thoroughfare between two splendid and powerful
societies. All through the summer, travelling-carriages came crawling
up, or went plunging briskly downwards past the mill; and as it happened
that the other side was very much easier of ascent, the path was not
much frequented, except by people going in one direction; and of all the
carriages that Will saw go by, five-sixths were plunging briskly
downwards and only one-sixth crawling up. Much more was this the case
with foot-passengers. All the light-footed tourists, all the pedlars
laden with strange wares, were tending downward like the river that
accompanied their path. Nor was this all; for when Will was yet a child
a disastrous war arose over a great part of the world. The newspapers
were full of defeats and victories, the earth rang with cavalry hoofs,
and often for days together and for miles around the coil of battle
terrified good people from their labours in the field. Of all this,
nothing was heard for a long time in the valley; but at last one of the
commanders pushed an army over the pass by forced marches, and for three
days horse and foot, cannon and tumbril, drum and standard, kept pouring
downward past the mill. All day the child stood and watched them on
their passage—the rhythmical stride, the pale, unshaven faces tanned
about the eyes, the discoloured regimentals and the tattered flags,
filled him with a sense of weariness, pity, and wonder; and all night
long, after he was in bed, he could hear the cannon pounding and the
feet trampling, and the great armament sweeping onward and downward
past the mill. No one in the valley ever heard the fate of the
expedition, for they lay out of the way of gossip in those troublous
times; but Will saw one thing plainly, that not a man returned. Whither
had they all gone? Whither went all the tourists and pedlars with
strange wares? whither all the brisk barouches with servants in the
dicky? whither the water of the stream, ever coursing downward and ever
renewed from above? Even the wind blew oftener down the valley, and
carried the dead leaves along with it in the fall. It seemed like a
great conspiracy of things animate and inanimate; they all went
downward, fleetly and gaily downward, and only he, it seemed, remained
behind, like a stock upon the wayside. It sometimes made him glad when
he noticed how the fishes kept their heads up stream. They, at least,
stood faithfully by him, while all else were posting downward to the
One evening he asked the miller where the river went.
"It goes down the valley," answered he, "and turns a power of mills—six
score mills, they say, from here to Unterdeck—and is none the wearier
after all. And then it goes out into the lowlands, and waters the great
corn country, and runs through a sight of fine cities (so they say)
where kings live all alone in great palaces, with a sentry walking up
and down before the door. And it goes under bridges with stone men upon
them, looking down and smiling so curious at the water, and living folks
leaning their elbows on the wall and looking over too. And then it goes
on and on, and down through marshes and sands, until at last it falls
into the sea, where the ships are that bring parrots and tobacco from
the Indies. Ay, it has a long trot before it as it goes singing over our
weir, bless its heart!"
"And what is the sea?" asked Will.
"The sea!" cried the miller. "Lord help us all, it is the greatest thing
God made. That is where all the water in the world runs down into a
great salt lake. There it lies, as flat as my hand and as innocent-like
as a child; but they do say when the wind blows it gets up into
water-mountains bigger than any of ours, and swallows down great ships
bigger than our mill, and makes such a roaring that you can hear it
miles away upon the land. There are great fish in it five times bigger
than a bull, and one old serpent as long as our river and as old as all
the world, with whiskers like a man, and a crown of silver on her head."
Will thought he had never heard anything like this, and he kept on
asking question after question about the world that lay away down the
river, with all its perils and marvels, until the old miller became
quite interested himself, and at last took him by the hand and led him
to the hilltop that overlooks the valley and the plain. The sun was near
setting, and hung low down in a cloudless sky. Everything was defined
and glorified in golden light. Will had never seen so great an expanse
of country in his life; he stood and gazed with all his eyes. He could
see the cities, and the woods and fields, and the bright curves of the
river, and far away to where the rim of the plain trenched along the
shining heavens. An over-mastering emotion seized upon the boy, soul and
body; his heart beat so thickly that he could not breathe; the scene
swam before his eyes; the sun seemed to wheel round and round, and throw
off, as it turned, strange shapes which disappeared with the rapidity of
thought, and were succeeded by others. Will covered his face with his
hands, and burst into a violent fit of tears; and the poor miller, sadly
disappointed and perplexed, saw nothing better for it than to take him
up in his arms and carry him home in silence.
From that day forward Will was full of new hopes and longings. Something
kept tugging at his heart-strings; the running water carried his desires
along with it as he dreamed over its fleeting surface; the wind, as it
ran over innumerable tree-tops, hailed him with encouraging words;
branches beckoned downward; the open road, as it shouldered round the
angles and went turning and vanishing fast and faster down the valley,
tortured him with its solicitations. He spent long whiles on the
eminence, looking down the river-shed and abroad on the flat low-lands,
and watched the clouds that travelled forth upon the sluggish wind and
trailed their purple shadows on the plain; or he would linger by the
wayside, and follow the carriages with his eyes as they rattled downward
by the river. It did not matter what it was; everything that went that
way, were it cloud or carriage, bird or brown water in the stream, he
felt his heart flow out after it in an ecstasy of longing.
We are told by men of science that all the ventures of mariners on the
sea, all that counter-marching of tribes and races that confounds old
history with its dust and rumour, sprang from nothing more abstruse than
the laws of supply and demand, and a certain natural instinct for cheap
rations. To any one thinking deeply, this will seem a dull and pitiful
explanation. The tribes that came swarming out of the North and East, if
they were indeed pressed onward from behind by others, were drawn at the
same time by the magnetic influence of the South and West. The fame of
other lands had reached them; the name of the eternal city rang in their
ears; they were not colonists, but pilgrims; they travelled towards wine
and gold and sunshine, but their hearts were set on something higher.
That divine unrest, that old stinging trouble of humanity that makes all
high achievements and all miserable failures, the same that spread wings
with Icarus, the same that sent Columbus into the desolate Atlantic,
inspired and supported these barbarians on their perilous march. There
is one legend which profoundly represents their spirit, of how a flying
party of these wanderers encountered a very old man shod with iron. The
old man asked them whither they were going; and they answered with one
voice: "To the Eternal City!" He looked upon them gravely. "I have
sought it," he said, "over the most part of the world. Three such pairs as I now carry on my feet have I worn out upon this pilgrimage, and
now the fourth is growing slender underneath my steps. And all this
while I have not found the city." And he turned and went his own way
alone, leaving them astonished.
And yet this would scarcely parallel the intensity of Will's feeling for
the plain. If he could only go far enough out there, he felt as if his
eyesight would be purged and clarified, as if his hearing would grow
more delicate, and his very breath would come and go with luxury. He was
transplanted and withering where he was; he lay in a strange country and
was sick for home. Bit by bit, he pieced together broken notions of the
world below: of the river, ever moving and growing until it sailed forth
into the majestic ocean; of the cities, full of brisk and beautiful
people, playing fountains, bands of music and marble palaces, and
lighted up at night from end to end with artificial stars of gold; of
the great churches, wise universities, brave armies, and untold money
lying stored in vaults; of the high-flying vice that moved in the
sunshine, and the stealth and swiftness of midnight murder. I have said
he was sick as if for home: the figure halts. He was like some one lying
in twilit, formless pre-existence, and stretching out his hands lovingly
towards many-coloured, many-sounding life. It was no wonder he was
unhappy, he would go and tell the fish: they were made for their life,
wished for no more than worms and running water, and a hole below a
falling bank; but he was differently designed, full of desires and
aspirations, itching at the fingers, lusting with the eyes, whom the
whole variegated world could not satisfy with aspects. The true life,
the true bright sunshine, lay far out upon the plain. And O! to see this
sunlight once before he died! to move with a jocund spirit in a golden
land! to hear the trained singers and sweet church bells, and see the
holiday gardens! "And O fish!" he would cry, "if you would only turn
your noses down stream, you could swim so easily into the fabled waters
and see the vast ships passing over your head like clouds, and hear the
great water-hills making music over you all day long!" But the fish kept
looking patiently in their own direction, until Will hardly knew whether
to laugh or cry.
Hitherto the traffic on the road had passed by Will, like something seen
in a picture: he had perhaps exchanged salutations with a tourist, or
caught sight of an old gentleman in a travelling cap at a carriage
window; but for the most part it had been a mere symbol, which he
contemplated from apart and with something of a superstitious feeling. A
time came at last when this was to be changed. The miller, who was a
greedy man in his way, and never forewent an opportunity of honest
profit, turned the mill-house into a little wayside inn, and, several
pieces of good fortune falling in opportunely, built stables and got the
position of post-master on the road. It now became Will's duty to wait
upon people, as they sat to break their fasts in the little arbour at
the top of the mill garden; and you may be sure that he kept his ears
open, and learned many new things about the outside world as he brought
the omelette or the wine. Nay, he would often get into conversation with
single guests, and by adroit questions and polite attention, not only
gratify his own curiosity, but win the good-will of the travellers. Many
complimented the old couple on their serving-boy; and a professor was
eager to take him away with him, and have him properly educated on the
plain. The miller and his wife were mightily astonished and even more
pleased. They thought it a very good thing that they should have opened
their inn. "You see," the old man would remark, "he has a kind of talent
for a publican; he never would have made anything else!" And so life
wagged on in the valley, with high satisfaction to all concerned but
Will. Every carriage that left the inn-door seemed to take a part of him
away with it; and when people jestingly offered him a lift, he could
with difficulty command his emotion. Night after night he would dream
that he was awakened by flustered servants, and that a splendid equipage
waited at the door to carry him down into the plain; night after night;
until the dream, which had seemed all jollity to him at first, began to
take on a colour of gravity, and the nocturnal summons and waiting
equipage occupied a place in his mind as something to be both feared and
One day, when Will was about sixteen, a fat young man arrived at sunset
to pass the night. He was a contented-looking fellow, with a jolly eye,
and carried a knapsack. While dinner was preparing, he sat in the arbour
to read a book; but as soon as he had begun to observe Will, the book
was laid aside; he was plainly one of those who prefer living people to
people made of ink and paper. Will, on his part, although he had not
been much interested in the stranger at first sight, soon began to take
a great deal of pleasure in his talk, which was full of good nature and
good sense, and at last conceived a great respect for his character and
wisdom. They sat far into the night; and about two in the morning Will
opened his heart to the young man, and told him how he longed to leave
the valley and what bright hopes he had connected with the cities of the
plain. The young man whistled, and then broke into a smile.
"My young friend," he remarked, "you are a very curious little fellow to
be sure, and wish a great many things which you will never get. Why, you
would feel quite ashamed if you knew how the little fellows in these
fairy cities of yours are all after the same sort of nonsense, and keep
breaking their hearts to get up into the mountains. And let me tell you,
those who go down into the plains are a very short while there before
they wish themselves heartily back again. The air is not so light nor so
pure; nor is the sun any brighter. As for the beautiful men and women,
you would see many of them in rags and many of them deformed with
horrible disorders; and a city is so hard a place for people who are
poor and sensitive that many choose to die by their own hand."
"You must think me very simple," answered Will. "Although I have never
been out of this valley, believe me, I have used my eyes. I know how
one thing lives on another; for instance, how the fish hangs in the
eddy to catch his fellows; and the shepherd, who makes so pretty a
picture carrying home the lamb, is only carrying it home for dinner. I
do not expect to find all things right in your cities. That is not what
troubles me; it might have been that once upon a time; but although I
live here always, I have asked many questions and learned a great deal
in these last years, and certainly enough to cure me of my old fancies.
But you would not have me die like a dog and not see all that is to be
seen, and do all that a man can do, let it be good or evil? you would
not have me spend all my days between this road here and the river, and
not so much as make a motion to be up and live my life?—I would rather
die out of hand," he cried, "than linger on as I am doing."
"Thousands of people," said the young man, "live and die like you, and
are none the less happy."
"Ah!" said Will, "if there are thousands who would like, why should not
one of them have my place?"
It was quite dark; there was a hanging lamp in the arbour which lit up
the table and the faces of the speakers; and along the arch, the leaves
upon the trellis stood out illuminated against the night sky, a pattern
of transparent green upon a dusky purple. The fat young man rose, and,
taking Will by the arm, led him out under the open heavens.
"Did you ever look at the stars?" he asked, pointing upwards.
"Often and often," answered Will.
"And do you know what they are?"
"I have fancied many things."
"They are worlds like ours," said the young man. "Some of them less;
many of them a million times greater; and some of the least sparkles
that you see are not only worlds, but whole clusters of worlds turning
about each other in the midst of space. We do not know what there may be
in any of them; perhaps the answer to all our difficulties or the cure
of all our sufferings: and yet we can never reach them; not all the
skill of the craftiest of men can fit out a ship for the nearest of
these our neighbours, nor would the life of the most aged suffice for
such a journey. When a great battle has been lost or a dear friend is
dead, when we are hipped or in high spirits, there they are unweariedly
shining overhead. We may stand down here, a whole army of us together,
and shout until we break our hearts, and not a whisper reaches them. We
may climb the highest mountain, and we are no nearer them. All we can do
is to stand down here in the garden and take off our hats; the starshine
lights upon our heads, and where mine is a little bald, I dare say you
can see it glisten in the darkness. The mountain and the mouse. That is
like to be all we shall ever have to do with Arcturus or Aldebaran. Can
you apply a parable?" he added, laying his hand upon Will's shoulder.
"It is not the same thing as a reason, but usually vastly more
Will hung his head a little, and then raised it once more to heaven. The
stars seemed to expand and emit a sharper brilliancy; and as he kept
turning his eyes higher and higher, they seemed to increase in
multitude under his gaze.
"I see," he said, turning to the young man. "We are in a rat-trap."
"Something of that size. Did you ever see a squirrel turning in a cage?
and another squirrel sitting philosophically over his nuts? I needn't
ask you which of them looked more of a fool."
THE PARSON'S MARJORY
After some years the old people died, both in one winter, very carefully
tended by their adopted son, and very quietly mourned when they were
gone. People who had heard of his roving fancies supposed he would
hasten to sell the property, and go down the river to push his fortunes.
But there was never any sign of such an intention on the part of Will.
On the contrary, he had the inn set on a better footing, and hired a
couple of servants to assist him in carrying it on; and there he settled
down, a kind, talkative, inscrutable young man, six feet three in his
stockings, with an iron constitution and a friendly voice. He soon began
to take rank in the district as a bit of an oddity: it was not much to
be wondered at from the first, for he was always full of notions, and
kept calling the plainest common-sense in question; but what most raised
the report upon him was the odd circumstance of his courtship with the
The parson's Marjory was a lass about nineteen, when Will would be about
thirty; well enough looking, and much better educated than any other
girl in that part of the country, as became her parentage. She held her
head very high, and had already refused several offers of marriage with
a grand air, which had got her hard names among the neighbours. For all
that she was a good girl, and one that would have made any man well
Will had never seen much of her; for although the church and parsonage
were only two miles from his own door, he was never known to go there
but on Sundays. It chanced, however, that the parsonage fell into
disrepair, and had to be dismantled; and the parson and his daughter
took lodgings for a month or so, on very much reduced terms, at Will's
Now, what with the inn, and the mill, and the old miller's savings, our
friend was a man of substance; and besides that, he had a name for good
temper and shrewdness, which make a capital portion in marriage; and so
it was currently gossipped, among their ill-wishers, that the parson and
his daughter had not chosen their temporary lodging with their eyes
shut. Will was about the last man in the world to be cajoled or
frightened into marriage. You had only to look into his eyes, limpid and
still like pools of water, and yet with a sort of clear light that
seemed to come from within, and you would understand at once that here
was one who knew his own mind, and would stand to it immovably. Marjory
herself was no weakling by her looks, with strong, steady eyes and a
resolute and quiet bearing. It might be a question whether she was not
Will's match in steadfastness, after all, or which of them would rule
the roast in marriage. But Marjory had never given it a thought, and
accompanied her father with the most unshaken innocence and unconcern.
The season was still so early that Will's customers were few and far
between; but the lilacs were already flowering, and the weather was so
mild that the party took dinner under the trellice, with the noise of
the river in their ears and the woods ringing about them with the songs
of birds. Will soon began to take a particular pleasure in these
dinners. The parson was rather a dull companion, with a habit of dozing
at table; but nothing rude or cruel ever fell from his lips. And as for
the parson's daughter, she suited her surroundings with the best grace
imaginable; and whatever she said seemed so pat and pretty that Will
conceived a great idea of her talents. He could see her face, as she
leaned forward, against a background of rising pinewoods; her eyes shone
peaceably; the light lay around her hair like a kerchief; something that
was hardly a smile rippled her pale cheeks, and Will could not contain
himself from gazing on her in an agreeable dismay. She looked, even in
her quietest moments, so complete in herself, and so quick with life
down to her finger tips and the very skirts of her dress, that the
remainder of created things became no more than a blot by comparison;
and if Will glanced away from her to her surroundings, the trees looked
inanimate and senseless, the clouds hung in heaven like dead things,
and even the mountain tops were disenchanted. The whole valley could not
compare in looks with this one girl.
Will was always observant in the society of his fellow-creatures; but
his observation became almost painfully eager in the case of Marjory. He
listened to all she uttered, and read her eyes, at the same time, for
the unspoken commentary. Many kind, simple, and sincere speeches found
an echo in his heart. He became conscious of a soul beautifully poised
upon itself, nothing doubting, nothing desiring, clothed in peace. It
was not possible to separate her thoughts from her appearance. The turn
of her wrist, the still sound of her voice, the light in her eyes, the
lines of her body, fell in tune with her grave and gentle words, like
the accompaniment that sustains and harmonizes the voice of the singer.
Her influence was one thing, not to be divided or discussed, only to be
felt with gratitude and joy. To Will, her presence recalled something of
his childhood, and the thought of her took its place in his mind beside
that of dawn, of running water, and of the earliest violets and lilacs.
It is the property of things seen for the first time, or for the first
time after long, like the flowers in spring, to reawaken in us the sharp
edge of sense and that impression of mystic strangeness which otherwise
passes out of life with the coming of years; but the sight of a loved
face is what renews a man's character from the fountain upwards.
One day after dinner Will took a stroll among the firs; a grave
beatitude possessed him from top to toe, and he kept smiling to himself
and the landscape as he went. The river ran between the stepping-stones
with a pretty wimple; a bird sang loudly in the wood; the hill-tops
looked immeasurably high, and as he glanced at them from time to time
seemed to contemplate his movements with a beneficent but awful
curiosity. His way took him to the eminence which overlooked the plain;
and there he sat down upon a stone, and fell into deep and pleasant
thought. The plain lay abroad with its cities and silver river;
everything was asleep, except a great eddy of birds which kept rising
and falling and going round and round in the blue air. He repeated
Marjory's name aloud, and the sound of it gratified his ear. He shut his
eyes, and her image sprang up before him, quietly luminous and attended
with good thoughts. The river might run for ever; the birds fly higher
and higher till they touched the stars. He saw it was empty bustle after
all; for here, without stirring a foot, waiting patiently in his own
narrow valley, he also had attained the better sunlight.
The next day Will made a sort of declaration across the dinner-table,
while the parson was filling his pipe.
"Miss Marjory," he said, "I never knew any one I liked so well as you. I
am mostly a cold, unkindly sort of man; not from want of heart, but out
of strangeness in my way of thinking; and people seem far away from me.
'Tis as if there were a circle round me, which kept every one out but
you; I can hear the others talking and laughing; but you come quite
close. Maybe, this is disagreeable to you?" he asked.
Marjory made no answer.
"Speak up, girl," said the parson.
"Nay, now," returned Will, "I wouldn't press her, parson. I feel
tongue-tied myself, who am not used to it; and she's a woman, and little
more than a child, when all is said. But for my part, as far as I can
understand what people mean by it, I fancy I must be what they call in
love. I do not wish to be held as committing myself; for I may be wrong;
but that is how I believe things are with me. And if Miss Marjory should
feel any otherwise on her part, mayhap she would be so kind as shake her
Marjory was silent, and gave no sign that she had heard.
"How is that, parson?" asked Will.
"The girl must speak," replied the parson, laying down his pipe. "Here's
our neighbour who says he loves you, Madge. Do you love him, ay or no?"
"I think I do," said Marjory, faintly.
"Well then, that's all that could be wished!" cried Will, heartily. And
he took her hand across the table, and held it a moment in both of his
with great satisfaction.
"You must marry," observed the parson, replacing his pipe in his mouth.
"Is that the right thing to do, think you?" demanded Will.
"It is indispensable," said the parson.
"Very well," replied the wooer.
Two or three days passed away with great delight to Will, although a
bystander might scarce have found it out. He continued to take his meals
opposite Marjory, and to talk with her and gaze upon her in her father's
presence; but he made no attempt to see her alone, nor in any other way
changed his conduct towards her from what it had been since the
beginning. Perhaps the girl was a little disappointed, and perhaps not
unjustly; and yet if it had been enough to be always in the thoughts of
another person, and so pervade and alter his whole life, she might have
been thoroughly contented. For she was never out of Will's mind for an
instant. He sat over the stream, and watched the dust of the eddy, and
the poised fish, and straining weeds; he wandered out alone into the
purple even, with all the blackbirds piping round in the wood; he rose
early in the morning, and saw the sky turn from gray to gold, and the
light leap upon the hill-tops; and all the while he kept wondering if he
had never seen such things before, or how it was that they should look
so different now. The sound of his own mill-wheel, or of the wind among
the trees, confounded and charmed his heart. The most enchanting
thoughts presented themselves unbidden in his mind. He was so happy that
he could not sleep at night, and so restless that he could hardly sit
still out of her company. And yet it seemed as if he avoided her rather
than sought her out.
One day, as he was coming home from a ramble, Will found Marjory in the
garden picking flowers, and as he came up with her, slackened his pace
and continued walking by her side.
"You like flowers?" he said.
"Indeed I love them dearly," she replied. "Do you?"
"Why, no," said he, "not so much. They are a very small affair, when all
is done. I can fancy people caring for them greatly, but not doing as
you are just now."
"How?" she asked, pausing and looking up at him.
"Plucking them," said he. "They are a deal better off where they are,
and look a deal prettier, if you go to that."
"I wish to have them for my own," she answered, "to carry them near my
heart, and keep them in my room. They tempt me when they grow here; they
seem to say, 'Come and do something with us,' but once I have cut them
and put them by, the charm is laid, and I can look at them with quite an
"You wish to possess them," replied Will, "in order to think no more
about them. It's a bit like killing the goose with the golden eggs. It's
a bit like what I wished to do when I was a boy. Because I had a fancy
for looking out over the plain, I wished to go down there—where I
couldn't look out over it any longer. Was not that fine reasoning? Dear,
dear, if they only thought of it, all the world would do like me; and
you would let your flowers alone, just as I stay up here in the
mountains." Suddenly he broke off sharp. "By the Lord!" he cried. And
when she asked him what was wrong, he turned the question off, and
walked away into the house with rather a humorous expression of face.
He was silent at table; and after the night had fallen and the stars had
come out overhead, he walked up and down for hours in the courtyard and
garden with an uneven pace. There was still a light in the window of
Marjory's room: one little oblong patch of orange in a world of dark
blue hills and silver starlight. Will's mind ran a great deal on the
window; but his thoughts were not very lover-like. "There she is in her
room," he thought, "and there are the stars overhead:—a blessing upon
both!" Both were good influences in his life; both soothed and braced
him in his profound contentment with the world. And what more should he
desire with either? The fat young man and his councils were so present
to his mind, that he threw back his head, and, putting his hands before
his mouth, shouted aloud to the populous heavens. Whether from the
position of his head or the sudden strain of the exertion, he seemed to
see a momentary shock among the stars, and a diffusion of frosty light
pass from one to another along the sky. At the same instant, a corner of
the blind was lifted up and lowered again at once. He laughed a loud
ho-ho! "One and another!" thought Will. "The stars tremble, and the
blind goes up. Why, before Heaven, what a great magician I must be! Now
if I were only a fool, should not I be in a pretty way?" And he went
off to bed, chuckling to himself: "If I were only a fool!"
The next morning, pretty early, he saw her once more in the garden, and
sought her out.
"I have been thinking about getting married," he began abruptly; "and
after having turned it all over, I have made up my mind it's not worth
She turned upon him for a single moment; but his radiant, kindly
appearance would, under the circumstances, have disconcerted an angel,
and she looked down again upon the ground in silence. He could see her
"I hope you don't mind," he went on, a little taken aback. "You ought
not. I have turned it all over, and upon my soul there's nothing in it.
We should never be one whit nearer than we are just now, and, if I am a
wise man, nothing like so happy."
"It is unnecessary to go round about with me," she said. "I very well
remember that you refused to commit yourself; and now that I see you
were mistaken, and in reality have never cared for me, I can only feel
sad that I have been so far misled."
"I ask your pardon," said Will stoutly; "you do not understand my
meaning. As to whether I have ever loved you or not, I must leave that
to others. But for one thing, my feeling is not changed; and for
another, you may make it your boast that you have made my whole life and
character something different from what they were. I mean what I say; no
less. I do not think getting married is worth while. I would rather you
went on living with your father, so that I could walk over and see you
once, or maybe twice a week, as people go to church, and then we should
both be all the happier between whiles. That's my notion. But I'll marry
you if you will," he added.
"Do you know that you are insulting me?" she broke out.
"Not I, Marjory," said he; "if there is anything in a clear conscience,
not I. I offer all my heart's best affections; you can take it or want
it, though I suspect it's beyond either your power or mine to change
what has once been done, and set me fancy-free. I'll marry you, if you
like; but I tell you again and again, it's not worth while, and we had
best stay friends. Though I am a quiet man I have noticed a heap of
things in my life. Trust in me, and take things as I propose; or, if you
don't like that, say the word, and I'll marry you out of hand."
There was a considerable pause, and Will, who began to feel uneasy,
began to grow angry in consequence.
"It seems you are too proud to say your mind," he said. "Believe me
that's a pity. A clean shrift makes simple living. Can a man be more
downright or honourable to a woman than I have been? I have said my say,
and given you your choice. Do you want me to marry you? or will you take
my friendship, as I think best? or have you had enough of me for good?
Speak out for the dear God's sake! You know your father told you a girl
should speak her mind in these affairs."
She seemed to recover herself at that, turned without a word, walked
rapidly through the garden, and disappeared into the house, leaving Will
in some confusion as to the result. He walked up and down the garden,
whistling softly to himself. Sometimes he stopped and contemplated the
sky and hill-tops; sometimes he went down to the tail of the weir and
sat there, looking foolishly in the water. All this dubiety and
perturbation was so foreign to his nature and the life which he had
resolutely chosen for himself, that he began to regret Marjory's
arrival. "After all," he thought, "I was as happy as a man need be. I
could come down here and watch my fishes all day long if I wanted: I was
as settled and contented as my old mill."
Marjory came down to dinner, looking very trim and quiet; and no sooner
were all three at table than she made her father a speech, with her eyes
fixed upon her plate, but showing no other sign of embarrassment or
"Father," she began, "Mr. Will and I have been talking things over. We
see that we have each made a mistake about our feelings, and he has
agreed, at my request, to give up all idea of marriage, and be no more
than my very good friend, as in the past. You see, there is no shadow of
a quarrel, and indeed I hope we shall see a great deal of him in the
future, for his visits will always be welcome in our house. Of course,
father, you will know best, but perhaps we should do better to leave Mr.
Will's house for the present. I believe, after what has passed, we
should hardly be agreeable inmates for some days."
Will, who had commanded himself with difficulty from the first, broke
out upon this into an inarticulate noise, and raised one hand with an
appearance of real dismay, as if he were about to interfere and
contradict. But she checked him at once, looking up at him with a swift
glance and an angry flush upon her cheek.
"You will perhaps have the good grace," she said, "to let me explain
these matters for myself."
Will was put entirely out of countenance by her expression and the ring
of her voice. He held his peace, concluding that there were some things
about this girl beyond his comprehension, in which he was exactly right.
The poor parson was quite crestfallen. He tried to prove that this was
no more than a true lovers' tiff, which would pass off before night; and
when he was dislodged from that position, he went on to argue that where
there was no quarrel there could be no call for a separation; for the
good man liked both his entertainment and his host. It was curious to
see how the girl managed them, saying little all the time, and that very
quietly, and yet twisting them round her finger and insensibly leading
them wherever she would by feminine tact and generalship. It scarcely
seemed to have been her doing—it seemed as if things had merely so
fallen out—that she and her father took their departure that same
afternoon in a farm-cart, and went farther down the valley, to wait,
until their own house was ready for them, in another hamlet. But Will
had been observing closely, and was well aware of her dexterity and
resolution. When he found himself alone he had a great many curious
matters to turn over in his mind. He was very sad and solitary, to begin
with. All the interest had gone out of his life, and he might look up at
the stars as long as he pleased, he somehow failed to find support or
consolation. And then he was in such turmoil of spirit about Marjory. He
had been puzzled and irritated at her behaviour, and yet he could not
keep himself from admiring it. He thought he recognized a fine, perverse
angel in that still soul which he had never hitherto suspected; and
though he saw it was an influence that would fit but ill with his own
life of artificial calm, he could not keep himself from ardently
desiring to possess it. Like a man who has lived among shadows and now
meets the sun, he was both pained and delighted.
As the days went forward he passed from one extreme to another; now
pluming himself on the strength of his determination, now despising his
timid and silly caution. The former was, perhaps, the true thought of
his heart, and represented the regular tenor of the man's reflections;
but the latter burst forth from time to time with an unruly violence,
and then he would forget all consideration, and go up and down his house
and garden or walk among the firwoods like one who is beside himself
with remorse. To equable, steady-minded Will this state of matters was
intolerable; and he determined, at whatever cost, to bring it to an end.
So, one warm summer afternoon he put on his best clothes, took a thorn
switch in his hand, and set out down the valley by the river. As soon as
he had taken his determination, he had regained at a bound his customary
peace of heart, and he enjoyed the bright weather and the variety of the
scene without any admixture of alarm or unpleasant eagerness. It was
nearly the same to him how the matter turned out. If she accepted him he
would have to marry her this time, which perhaps was all for the best.
If she refused him, he would have done his utmost, and might follow his
own way in the future with an untroubled conscience. He hoped, on the
whole, she would refuse him; and then, again, as he saw the brown roof
which sheltered her, peeping through some willows at an angle of the
stream, he was half inclined to reverse the wish, and more than half
ashamed of himself for this infirmity of purpose.
Marjory seemed glad to see him, and gave him her hand without
affectation or delay.
"I have been thinking about this marriage," he began.
"So have I," she answered. "And I respect you more and more for a very
wise man. You understood me better than I understood myself; and I am
now quite certain that things are all for the best as they are."
"At the same time——" ventured Will.
"You must be tired," she interrupted. "Take a seat and let me fetch you
a glass of wine. The afternoon is so warm; and I wish you not to be
displeased with your visit. You must come quite often; once a week, if
you can spare the time; I am always so glad to see my friends."
"O, very well," thought Will to himself. "It appears I was right after
all." And he paid a very agreeable visit, walked home again in capital
spirits, and gave himself no further concern about the matter.
For nearly three years Will and Marjory continued on these terms, seeing
each other once or twice a week without any word of love between them;
and for all that time I believe Will was nearly as happy as a man can
be. He rather stinted himself the pleasure of seeing her; and he would
often walk half-way over to the parsonage, and then back again, as if to
whet his appetite. Indeed there was one corner of the road, whence he
could see the church-spire wedged into a crevice of the valley between
sloping fir woods, with a triangular snatch of plain by way of
background, which he greatly affected as a place to sit and moralize in
before returning homewards; and the peasants got so much into the habit
of finding him there in the twilight that they gave it the name of "Will
o' the Mill's Corner."
At the end of the three years Marjory played him a sad trick by suddenly
marrying somebody else. Will kept his countenance bravely, and merely
remarked that, for as little as he knew of women, he had acted very
prudently in not marrying her himself three years before. She plainly
knew very little of her own mind, and, in spite of a deceptive manner,
was as fickle and flighty as the rest of them. He had to congratulate
himself on an escape, he said, and would take a high opinion of his own
wisdom in consequence. But at heart, he was reasonably displeased, moped
a good deal for a month or two, and fell away in flesh, to the
astonishment of his serving-lads.
It was perhaps a year after this marriage that Will was awakened late
one night by the sound of a horse galloping on the road, followed by
precipitate knocking at the inn-door. He opened his window and saw a
farm servant, mounted and holding a led horse by the bridle, who told
him to make what haste he could and go along with him; for Marjory was
dying, and had sent urgently to fetch him to her bedside. Will was no
horseman, and made so little speed upon the way that the poor young wife
was very near her end before he arrived. But they had some minutes' talk
in private, and he was present and wept very bitterly while she breathed
Year after year went away into nothing, with great explosions and
outcries in the cities on the plain; red revolt springing up and being
suppressed in blood, battle swaying hither and thither, patient
astronomers in observatory towers picking out and christening new stars,
plays being performed in lighted theatres, people being carried into
hospitals on stretchers, and all the usual turmoil and agitation of
men's lives in crowded centres. Up in Will's valley only the winds and
seasons made an epoch; the fish hung in the swift stream, the birds
circled overhead, the pine-tops rustled underneath the stars, the tall
hills stood over all; and Will went to and fro, minding his wayside inn,
until the snow began to thicken on his head. His heart was young and
vigorous; and if his pulses kept a sober time, they still beat strong
and steady in his wrists. He carried a ruddy stain on either cheek, like
a ripe apple; he stooped a little, but his step was still firm; and his
sinewy hands were reached out to all men with a friendly pressure. His
face was covered with those wrinkles which are got in open air, and
which, rightly looked at, are no more than a sort of permanent
sunburning; such wrinkles heighten the stupidity of stupid faces; but to
a person like Will, with his clear eyes and smiling mouth, only give
another charm by testifying to a simple and easy life. His talk was full
of wise sayings. He had a taste for other people; and other people had a
taste for him. When the valley was full of tourists in the season, there
were merry nights in Will's arbour; and his views, which seemed
whimsical to his neighbours, were often enough admired by learned people
out of towns and colleges. Indeed, he had a very noble old age, and grew
daily better known; so that his fame was heard of in the cities of the
plain; and young men who had been summer travellers spoke together in
cafés of Will o' the Mill and his rough philosophy. Many and many an
invitation, you may be sure, he had; but nothing could tempt him from
his upland valley. He would shake his head and smile over his
tobacco-pipe with a deal of meaning. "You come too late," he would
answer. "I am a dead man now: I have lived and died already. Fifty years
ago you would have brought my heart into my mouth; and now you do not
even tempt me. But that is the object of long living, that man should
cease to care about life." And again: "There is only one difference
between a long life and a good dinner: that, in the dinner, the sweets
come last." Or once more: "When I was a boy, I was a bit puzzled, and
hardly knew whether it was myself or the world that was curious and
worth looking into. Now, I know it is myself, and stick to that."
He never showed any symptoms of frailty, but kept stalwart and firm to
the last; but they say he grew less talkative towards the end, and would
listen to other people by the hour in an amused and sympathetic silence.
Only, when he did speak, it was more to the point and more charged with
old experience. He drank a bottle of wine gladly; above all, at sunset
on the hilltop or quite late at night under the stars in the arbour. The
sight of something attractive and unattainable seasoned his enjoyment,
he would say; and he professed he had lived long enough to admire a
candle all the more when he could compare it with a planet.
One night, in his seventy-second year, he awoke in bed, in such
uneasiness of body and mind that he arose and dressed himself and went
out to meditate in the arbour. It was pitch dark, without a star; the
river was swollen, and the wet woods and meadows loaded the air with
perfume. It had thundered during the day, and it promised more thunder
for the morrow. A murky, stifling night for a man of seventy-two!
Whether it was the weather or the wakefulness, or some little touch of
fever in his old limbs, Will's mind was besieged by tumultuous and
crying memories. His boyhood, the night with the fat young man, the
death of his adopted parents, the summer days with Marjory, and many of
those small circumstances, which seem nothing to another, and are yet
the very gist of a man's own life to himself—things seen, words heard,
looks misconstrued—arose from their forgotten corners and usurped his
attention. The dead themselves were with him, not merely taking part in
this thin show of memory that defiled before his brain, but revisiting
his bodily senses as they do in profound and vivid dreams. The fat young
man leaned his elbows on the table opposite; Marjory came and went with
an apronful of flowers between the garden and the arbour; he could hear
the old parson knocking out his pipe or blowing his resonant nose. The
tide of his consciousness ebbed and flowed: he was sometimes half-asleep
and drowned in his recollections of the past; and sometimes he was broad
awake, wondering at himself. But about the middle of the night he was
startled by the voice of the dead miller calling to him out of the house
as he used to do on the arrival of custom. The hallucination was so
perfect that Will sprang from his seat and stood listening for the
summons to be repeated; and as he listened he became conscious of
another noise besides the brawling of the river and the ringing in his
feverish ears. It was like the stir of the horses and the creaking of
harness, as though a carriage with an impatient team had been brought up
upon the road before the courtyard gate. At such an hour, upon this
rough and dangerous pass, the supposition was no better than absurd; and
Will dismissed it from his mind, and resumed his seat upon the arbour
chair; and sleep closed over him again like running water. He was once
again awakened by the dead miller's call, thinner and more spectral than
before; and once again he heard the noise of an equipage upon the road.
And so thrice and four times, the same dream, or the same fancy,
presented itself to his senses: until at length, smiling to himself as
when one humours a nervous child, he proceeded towards the gate to set
his uncertainty at rest.
From the arbour to the gate was no great distance, and yet it took Will
some time; it seemed as if the dead thickened around him in the court,
and crossed his path at every step. For, first, he was suddenly
surprised by an overpowering sweetness of heliotropes; it was as if his
garden had been planted with this flower from end to end, and the hot,
damp night had drawn forth all their perfumes in a breath. Now the
heliotrope had been Marjory's favourite flower, and since her death not
one of them had ever been planted in Will's ground.
"I must be going crazy," he thought. "Poor Marjory and her heliotropes!"
And with that he raised his eyes towards the window that had once been
hers. If he had been bewildered before, he was now almost terrified; for
there was a light in the room; the window was an orange oblong as of
yore; and the corner of the blind was lifted and let fall as on the
night when he stood and shouted to the stars in his perplexity. The
illusion only endured an instant; but it left him somewhat unmanned,
rubbing his eyes and staring at the outline of the house and the black
night behind it. While he thus stood, and it seemed as if he must have
stood there quite a long time, there came a renewal of the noises on the
road; and he turned in time to meet a stranger, who was advancing to
meet him across the court. There was something like the outline of a
great carriage discernible on the road behind the stranger, and, above
that, a few black pine-tops, like so many plumes.
"Master Will?" asked the new-comer, in brief military fashion.
"That same, sir," answered Will. "Can I do anything to serve you?"
"I have heard you much spoken of, Master Will," returned the other;
"much spoken of, and well. And though I have both hands full of
business, I wish to drink a bottle of wine with you in your arbour.
Before I go, I shall introduce myself."
Will led the way to the trellis, and got a lamp lighted and a bottle
uncorked. He was not altogether unused to such complimentary interviews,
and hoped little enough from this one, being schooled by many
disappointments. A sort of cloud had settled on his wits and prevented
him from remembering the strangeness of the hour. He moved like a
person in his sleep; and it seemed as if the lamp caught fire and the
bottle came uncorked with the facility of thought. Still, he had some
curiosity about the appearance of his visitor, and tried in vain to turn
the light into his face; either he handled the lamp clumsily, or there
was a dimness over his eyes, but he could make out little more than a
shadow at table with him. He stared and stared at this shadow, as he
wiped out the glasses, and began to feel cold and strange about the
heart. The silence weighed upon him, for he could hear nothing now, not
even the river, but the drumming of his own arteries in his ears.
"Here's to you," said the stranger roughly.
"Here is my service, sir," replied Will, sipping his wine, which somehow
"I understand you are a very positive fellow," pursued the stranger.
Will made answer with a smile of some satisfaction and a little nod.
"So am I," continued the other; "and it is the delight of my heart to
tramp on people's corns. I will have nobody positive but myself; not
one. I have crossed the whims, in my time, of kings and generals and
great artists. And what would you say," he went on, "if I had come up
here on purpose to cross yours?"
Will had it on his tongue to make a sharp rejoinder; but the politeness
of an old innkeeper prevailed; and he held his peace and made answer
with a civil gesture of the hand.
"I have," said the stranger. "And if I did not hold you in a particular
esteem I should make no words about the matter. It appears you pride
yourself on staying where you are. You mean to stick by your inn. Now I
mean you shall come for a turn with me in my barouche; and before this
bottle's empty, so you shall."
"That would be an odd thing, to be sure," replied Will, with a chuckle.
"Why, sir, I have grown here like an old oak-tree; the Devil himself
could hardly root me up: and for all I perceive you are a very
entertaining old gentleman, I would wager you another bottle you lose
your pains with me."
The dimness of Will's eyesight had been increasing all this while; but
he was somehow conscious of a sharp and chilling scrutiny which
irritated and yet overmastered him.
"You need not think," he broke out suddenly, in an explosive, febrile
manner that startled and alarmed himself, "that I am a stay-at-home,
because I fear anything under God. God knows I am tired enough of it
all; and when the times comes for a longer journey than ever you dream
of, I reckon I shall find myself prepared."
The stranger emptied his glass and pushed it away from him. He looked
down for a little, and then, leaning over the table, tapped Will three
times upon the forearm with a single finger. "The time has come!" he
An ugly thrill spread from the spot he touched. The tones of his voice
were dull and startling, and echoed strangely in Will's heart.
"I beg your pardon," he said, with some discomposure. "What do you
"Look at me, and you will find your eyesight swim. Raise your hand; it
is dead-heavy. This is your last bottle of wine, Master Will, and your
last night upon the earth."
"You are a doctor?" quavered Will.
"The best that ever was," replied the other; "for I cure both mind and
body with the same prescription. I take away all pain and I forgive all
sins; and where my patients have gone wrong in life, I smooth out all
complications and set them free again upon their feet."
"I have no need of you," said Will.
"A time comes for all men, Master Will," replied the doctor, "when the
helm is taken out of their hands. For you, because you were prudent and
quiet, it has been long of coming, and you have had long to discipline
yourself for its reception. You have seen what is to be seen about your
mill; you have sat close all your days like a hare in its form; but now
that is at an end; and," added the doctor, getting on his feet, "you
must arise and come with me."
"You are a strange physician," said Will, looking steadfastly upon his
"I am a natural law," he replied, "and people call me Death."
"Why did you not tell me so at first?" cried Will. "I have been waiting
for you these many years. Give me your hand, and welcome."
"Lean upon my arm," said the stranger, "for already your strength
abates. Lean on me heavily as you need; for though I am old, I am very
strong. It is but three steps to my carriage, and there all your trouble
ends. Why, Will," he added, "I have been yearning for you as if you were
my own son; and of all the men that ever I came for in my long days, I
have come for you most gladly. I am caustic, and sometimes offend people
at first sight; but I am a good friend at heart to such as you."
"Since Marjory was taken," returned Will, "I declare before God you were
the only friend I had to look for."
So the pair went arm-in-arm across the courtyard.
One of the servants awoke about this time and heard the noise of horses
pawing before he dropped asleep again; all down the valley that night
there was a rushing as of a smooth and steady wind descending towards
the plain; and when the world rose next morning, sure enough Will o' the
Mill had gone at last upon his travels.